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Apples for the Students

Through Farm to School programs and creative thinking, education support professionals contribute to student health and learning.

There were no apples in the trash after the eighth-grade lunch period yesterday at the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Northampton, Massachusetts.

That’s one sign of the successful efforts of education support professionals (ESPs) and everyone else at the school to hook students on healthy eating.

The eighth graders tossed in some uneaten rice and assorted packaging, but no apples.

Another sign of success: the students said they loved them. (They really liked the chicken cutlets, too.)

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel visited the school yesterday to celebrate the work of education support professionals during American Education Week. Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) President Paul Toner and Undersecretary Kevin Concannon of the U.S. Department of Agriculture accompanied Van Roekel and all three served lunches to the students.

The apples at the Northampton school are locally grown, which is a priority for the MTA Farm To School initiative headed by Donna Johnson. Johnson is also president of the 1,000-member ESP local at the nearby University of Massachusetts Amherst campus.

The Farm To School Initiative helps get local farmers together with school food service officials to put fresh fruit and vegetables on the plates of students across the state. Sharon Carlson, president of the Northampton Association of School Employees, said fresh food can cost more and sometimes takes longer to prepare. But the benefits of feeding students more nutritious food and establishing healthy eating habits far outweigh the problems, she said.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel (back center) and MTA President Paul Toner pose with students from JFK Middle School during their American Education Week visit. NEA/Sewell Johnson.

Johnson said learning about food is part of educating the whole child. “Education isn’t just about numbers and being able to spell. It’s also knowing that those apples didn’t come from the grocery store, they came from the local orchard.”

And there are many other lessons to learn from food, she said. Educators in Washington State worked with students to start a garden that produced 50 pounds of carrots. They gave, half to the school food service and the other half to a local soup kitchen. “That teaches children about food, about being generous, and about the fact that some people don’t have it as good as they do,” Carlson said.

“I’d like to send each child home with a plant, maybe a tomato plant, at the end of the year to grow over the summer and see what that’s like, she added. “When they grow something and eat it, that’s the greatest thing in the world.”

Dishing up nutrition and learning at JFK Middle School in Massachusetts. NEA/Sewell Johnson.

She said many schools can’t prepare fresh food because they have no kitchens, so they rely on processed food. But that food is often not as nutritious. “In some areas, the school lunch is the best meal the student is going to have all day long,” she said.

Her group has found many outside partners to help get the work done. In a few schools, they’ve started gardens where students grow some of their food, and parents get involved to keep the garden going in the summer.

In Haverhill, an Eagle Scout built ramps for disabled students as a Boy Scout project. “Now the wheel chairs roll right up to the beds. For one student, it was the first time he had ever gotten his hands in the earth. The look on his face was amazing,” Johnson said.

In the town of Amherst, ESPs helped start a “fruit of the month” program. This month, there are bags of apples on teachers’ desks – not for the teachers but for students to eat when they are hungry.

Support professionals were key in all of these projects, she said.

Roxanne Dove, director of the NEA ESP Quality Department, who also took part in the visit, said ESPs are especially key to local nutrition efforts because three-quarters of them – and 84 percent of food service employees – live in the community where they work.

NEA has so far provided $75,000 for the MTA’s Farm To School program. Some of it will be distributed as mini-grants to locals that want to start their own projects.

Van Roekel said that in this age of testing, people “are always asking about academic health and forgetting the rest. We also need physical health and mental and emotional health – and healthy eating.”

JFK Middle School cafeteria manager and head cook Pat Judge, who is the union’s cafeteria chapter coordinator, said the lunch menu has shifted toward more healthy offerings and the children are getting used to it. She no longer bakes high-calorie desserts, and she’s substituted whole-wheat pasta for white pasta, for example. Children now have three menu choices instead of just one. They can also choose a salad for lunch.

Nobody chose a salad yesterday. But they did love those apples!


American Education Week presents all Americans with a wonderful opportunity to celebrate public education and honor individuals who are making a difference in ensuring that every child receives a quality education.
Visit the AEW site for news, artwork, photos, and more.


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